In a perspective published in Science, researchers explore the future of houseplants as aesthetically pleasing and functional sirens of home health.
The idea is to genetically engineer house plants to serve as subtle alarms that something is amiss in our home and office environments. This is not the first time that plants have been proposed as biosensors. The authors point out that to date several environmentally relevant phytosensors have been designed by using biotechnology. In fact, what was once known as genetic engineering has grown into a whole field of study called synthetic biology, which is the design and construction of new biological entities or systems.
Synthetic biology is a valuable tool for agricultural production, allowing farmers to grow plants designed to resist drought or certain pests, and the authors published several studies involving the engineering of plants to react to certain conditions, like the presence of too much or too little nitrogen. Such plants "glow" when viewed with specifically designed filters. Once this technology is commercialized, it may allow farmers of the future to adjust their management plans accordingly.
What is new, and which the authors discuss in the Science article, is the concept of applying synthetic biology to houseplants beyond aesthetic reasons, like larger blooms or variegated foliage. "Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments," says the senior author. "Through the tools of synthetic biology it's possible for us to engineer houseplants that can serve as architectural design elements that are both pleasing to our senses and that function as early sensors of environmental agents that could harm our health, like mold, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds." The senior author explains that plant biosensors could be designed to react to harmful agents in any number of ways, such as gradually changing the color of their foliage or through the use of fluorescence.
The authors postulate that dense populations of biosensors would be needed, so architectural design elements like "plant walls" might best serve as environmental monitors while also serving our innate need to connect with nature even while indoors.
While the Science article presents the concept, the authors have plans to bring their ideas from the lab to future blueprints and ultimately to our homes, schools, hospitals and offices.
Plants to monitor home environment?
- 375 views